A Vexing, Complicated Documentary, ‘Kim’s Video’ Takes Us Well Beyond the Manhattan Movie Rental Outlet

Did the documentarian, David Redmon, and a cadre of like-minded cinephiliacs really bring the contents of Kim’s Video back to Manhattan after stealing it from an abandoned church in Italy?

Via Drafthouse Films
Scene from 'Kim's Video.' Via Drafthouse Films

A documentary by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, “Kim’s Video,” poses an age-old question: Do the ends justify the means? This is a film with a happy ending, and myriad people have been made happy due to its making. Among them is Enrico Tilotta, a citizen of far away Salemi, a town of 10,000 or so people in southwest Sicily. A jack-of-all-trades with a passion for music, Mr. Tilotta’s dream was to score the soundtrack of a film. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Redmon and Ms. Sabin, he has: “Kim’s Video.”

Who else is happy at the end of this vexing, complicated, and barely legal picture? There’s Diego, Salemi’s chief of police, who has since retired and opened a bed-and-breakfast. The mayor of Salemi, Domenico Venuti, got a trip to New York City out of the thing, presumably as a cultural ambassador. Youngman Kim, an immigrant from South Korea with some curious ideas about copyright control, saw his legacy as a businessman confirmed and celebrated. 

Then there’s Vittorio Sgarbi — cultural connoisseur, omnipresent statesman, Berlusconi hanger-on, and as fluid a political animal as you’re likely to find. What does he have to be happy about? Never again having to suffer the attentions of Mr. Redmon. Because, let’s face it, Mr. Redmon is a pest.

That, and he’s a nerd or a geek or a pick-your-appellation here. Although Mr. Redmon is well versed in the history of cinema, he’s no cineaste: His taste in movies is catholic to the extent that he barely has any taste at all. 

“Movies to me weren’t imaginary,” he tells us, “they were real. And sometimes I found it difficult to distinguish between fiction and reality.” For viewers who have some investment in reality, Mr. Redmon’s cinematic fixations are, if not necessarily troubling, then a lot to deal with. How does his wife put up with him? Oops, that would be Ms. Sabin. Forget great minds: Perhaps it’s obsessive minds that think alike.

Mr. Redmon came of age haunting the aisles of Kim’s Video, the movie rental outlet that, in its prime, boasted five Manhattan locations. Opened in 1987, the store was an offshoot of a dry cleaner whose side-business of renting videotapes proved increasingly profitable. Mr. Kim, a businessman who cultivated an air of mystery, followed the money and, ultimately, mirrored the tastes of his downtown clientele. 

The stores carried an abundance of anything and everything, however avant-garde, family-unfriendly, cheapjack, or suspicious. (Kim’s Video was raided by the police in 2005 for selling bootleg video-cassettes.) Niceties of customer service were less important than catering to the faithful. These included not only Mr. Redmon but actress Isabel Gillies, director Todd Phillips, musician Albert Hammond Jr., and Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmaking duo who have only just been forgiven the hundreds of dollars’ worth of late fees owed to Mr. Kim.

“Kim’s Video,” like “Pictures of Ghosts” and “Flipside,” is a requiem for adolescence lost. Adulthood — yeah, it’s a drag. How better to capture the heady buzz of discovery, transgression, and community than chasing it down against one’s better judgment? 

Kim’s Video closed its doors in 2008 due to changes in how movies are distributed and watched. But Mr. Redmon isn’t sitting still for it, having heard stories of how the entirety of its inventory had been bequeathed to the township of Salemi under circumstances that are charitably described as cloudy. Mr. Redmon buys a ticket to Italy and brings along Ms. Sabin, a camera, and a hard-to-love petulance.

What follows is a fool’s errand that involves politicians, gangsters, municipal duplicity, mold, mildew, and a heist committed in the name of one man’s nostalgia. Did Mr. Redmon and a cadre of like-minded cinephiliacs really bring the contents of Kim’s Video back to Manhattan after stealing it from an abandoned church in Italy? Mr. Kim, forever hard to read, is either boondoggled or impressed by the news.

The details of Mr. Redmon’s righteous robbery are as blurry as the videotapes he grew up watching. Still, the collection is there to see at the Alamo Drafthouse down on Liberty Street, in a display that is as true to Kim’s Video of yore as the bathroom at CBGB’s recreated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years back. Which is to say, not at all. 

Let’s hope Mr. Redmon, having got this particular albatross off his back, is onto richer things. In the meantime, he’s given us a film that is, in equal parts, frustrating and a diversion.

The New York Sun

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